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Her Story: Historic Women of the Triad

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Her Story: Historic Women of the Triad

In honor of International Woman’s Day, here are some historically significant women who were either born in the Triad or became associated with it during their lifetimes. This list is by no means exhaustive. A much longer article could easily have been written on any one of them. There have, of course, been thousands more Triad women who made a significant impact on the nation and the world, both those whose lives have been documented and honored, and those whose lives should have been.

Maya Angelou

Poet, essayist, memoirist, activist, screenwriter, and dancer Maya Angelou was born Marguerite Annie Johnson on April 4, 1928, in St. Louis, Missouri, and died in Winston-Salem on May 28, 2018. She achieved worldwide fame with the 1969 publication of I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, the first of her seven autobiographies, which dealt with her life up to the age of 17. It was the first nonfiction bestseller by an African-American woman.

Long before that work was published, she led an incredibly diverse life that is almost impossible to summarize in a short article. She would later write about being raped by her mother’s boyfriend when she was seven and the murder of her rapist by her uncles, leading to her not speaking again until she was 12. Her self-imposed silence honed her listening, observing, and memorizing skills, and she became an omnivorous reader. At 14, she moved with her mother to California, where she became San Francisco’s Black female cable car conductor at 16. She would later write and speak with utter candor about working as a prostitute and a pimp.

In 1951, she started dancing professionally, first with the dancer and choreographer Alvin Ailey, then solo and singing Calypso songs at the Beatnik club The Purple Onion, where she adopted the name Maya Angelou. In 1954-55, she toured Europe in a production of Porgy and Bess, and in 1957 recorded the album Miss Calypso, for which she wrote five of the songs.

In 1959, she moved to New York, where she joined the Harlem Writer’s Club, became increasingly politically active, met James Baldwin and Malcolm X, and was told “you’re going to be famous, but it won’t be for singing” by Billie Holiday.

In the early 1960s, she performed on Broadway and in Berlin in Jean Genet’s The Blacks, worked as an associate editor at the weekly English-language newspaper The Arab Observer in Cairo, and as an administrator at the University of Ghana. In 1965, she returned to the US to help Malcolm X form the Organization of Afro-American Unity.

In 1968, she attended a dinner party with James Baldwin, where Random House editor Robert Loomis encouraged her to write I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings.

Besides six more volumes of autobiography, she would follow its phenomenal critical and commercial success with over a dozen collections of poetry, three volumes of personal essays, two cookbooks, seven children’s books, seven plays, 21 documentaries, several films, four spoken word albums, and a TV series. In 1982, she was named the first Reynolds Professor of American Studies at Wake Forest University. In 1993, she became the first poet since Robert Frost to make an inaugural recitation when she recited her poem “On the Pulse of Morning” at the first inauguration of Bill Clinton. She received over 50 honorary degrees and was awarded the National Medal of Arts in 2000 and the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2011.

Mary Ellen Garber

Mary Ellen Garber, who was born in New York in 1916 and died in Winston-Salem in 2008, was a pioneering woman sportswriter. In 1924, shortly after her family moved to Winston-Salem, she had already acquired the two passions that would rule her life.

Although only eight years old, she was already reading the Winston-Salem Journal’s sports page and playing tackle football with neighborhood boys. Because she never grew larger than five feet tall and 90 pounds, she soon gave up playing football but never stopped loving sports.

When Garber graduated from Hollins College in Roanoke in 1938, she set out to become a professional journalist. But as she later told the Winston-Salem Journal’s Frank Tursi, “I never considered anything else [but being a journalist], But never at any time did I think about being a sportswriter.” She knew it was not a job for which any editor would hire her.

Instead, she started her journalism career at Winston’s afternoon daily, The Twin City Sentinel. Then came World War II, and just as with other professions, women were hired to fill the positions vacated by men serving overseas. Garber switched to general assignment reporting.

In 1944, the paper’s high school sports reporter graduated and joined the army. Garber took over his slot until the end of the war when she switched back to general reporting. But she kept asking for sports assignments, and in 1946, both the Sentinel’s managing editor and sports editor gave in.

For 30 years, she was the only female sports reporter in the ACC Conference and one of the very few in the country. But that wasn’t the only way she stood out.

She began covering sports at Atkins and Carver High Schools and Winston-State University, all of which were Black only.

“There were two different worlds, black and white, and most news about black people ended up on the Sunday newspaper’s ‘colored page,’” said Winston-Salem State Hall of Fame basketball coach Clarence “Big House” Gaines in an interview for the Washington Press Club Foundation in 1990. “We had outstanding athletes here, and Mary came to write about them when no one else cared. Mary was always trying to help the underdog.”

Garber stayed with the Sentinel until it changed hands in 1985. She retired from the Journal in 1986 but continued working part-time until 2002.

In 1990, the Atlantic Coast Conference established the annual Mary Garber Award to honor the ACC’s top female athlete. In 1998, Garber received the Mel Greenberg Media Award, and in 2008, was inducted into the Hall of Fame of the National Sportscasters and Sportswriters Association. In 2006, the Association of Women in Sports Media (AWSM) renamed its Pioneer Award the Mary Garber Pioneer Award.

Mabel Hampton

Black LGBT Rights activist Mabel Hampton was born in Winston-Salem in 1902 and died in New York in 1989. She was a singer and dancer during the Harlem Renaissance who performed with such stars as Moms Mabley and Ethel Waters at the famous Garden of Joy nightclub. For most of her life, she lived openly as a self-described “butch lesbian” and, in her later years, regularly answered the question “when did you come out?” with “honey, I was never in!”

According to recordings that Hampton made for the Lesbian Herstory Archives in Brooklyn, her mother died when she was two months old, and her grandmother adopted her. When her grandmother died in 1909, the seven-year-old girl was shipped to Greenwich Village, where she lived with her aunt and uncle until the woman beat her and the man raped her. She fled and lived with a white family in New Jersey until she was 17.

In 1919, she was arrested at a woman-only party in Harlem and served 13 months in a correctional facility. She was arrested and imprisoned again after a neighbor reported that she attended more women-only parties. 

Still, she continued going after her second release and found employment as a performer in an all-women troupe in Coney Island.

The social circles of the Harlem Renaissance allowed her to meet not only other Black dancers, singers, writers, and artists, but the New York gay community of the Roaring Twenties and Depression, and she would become a valuable chronicler of the lesbian scene in Harlem, Greenwich Village, and the Bronx.

While waiting for a bus in 1932, Hampton met a woman she later described as “dressed like a duchess.” This was her lifelong partner Lillian Foster, of whom she said the following in 1976:

“We haven’t been separated since in our whole life. Death will separate us. Other than that, I don’t want it to end.” They referred to themselves as Mabel and Lillian Hampton and lived together at 639 E. 169th Street in the Bronx’s Morrisania section until Foster died in 1978.

From 1948 until her retirement in 1972, Hampton worked at Jacobi Medical Center in the Bronx. In 1952, she briefly served as a domestic worker in the childhood home of Joan Nestle, the gay Jewish activist, and writer who would co-found the Lesbian Herstory Archives in 1974. In addition to helping Leslie found the organization, Hampton donated her collection of lesbian pulp fiction novels and held the banner in many Pride marches.

Hampton marched in the first national gay and lesbian civil rights march in Washington, D.C., and appeared in the films “Silent Pioneers” and “Before Stonewall.” In 1984, Hampton addressed the crowds at New York City’s Pride Parade. She said, “I, Mabel Hampton, have been a lesbian all my life, for 82 years, and I am proud of myself and my people. I would like all my people to be free in this country and all over the world, my gay people and my black people.”

After Lillian Foster’s death, Hampton remained actively involved in LGBT issues. She spent her final years helping to catalog the lives of Black lesbians in the 20th century with the Lesbian Herstory Archives and was an active member of Senior Action in a Gay Environment (SAGE) until she died on October 26, 1989.

Clara Ione Cox

Clara Ione Cox, who was born in 1879 in Guilford County and died in 1940, was a Quaker pastor and community activist in High Point. As a minister of the Springfield Quaker Meeting for 21 years, she advocated for “Interracial Sundays,” an effort to celebrate inclusion within local churches, and served on the Interracial Relations Committee of the North Carolina Yearly Meeting of the Society of Friends.

Her activism, however, was not confined to her work within the church but was also performed separately to it. Because of this, church records contain little mention of it, but her correspondence reveals it was an equally important part of her life. She was very active in several secular anti-racist organizations from the 1920s until after World War II, including the Committee on Inter-racial Cooperation and the Association of Southern Women for the Prevention of Lynching (ASWPL).

This was more unusual than it may seem. Despite their church’s historical opposition to slavery, which included a pivotal role in establishing the Underground Railroad, after the failure of Reconstruction and the disenfranchisement of Blacks throughout the former Confederacy, Quaker ministers kept a low political profile in the Jim Crow South. From the 1914 revival of the KKK until the dawn of the Civil Rights Era, they rarely spoke out against racism. An interracial conference held in Greensboro in 1925 was attended by 16 Quakers from Philadelphia, but almost no few Southern Quakers attended or even showed interest in the event.

As chair of the state ASWPL, Clara maintained a lengthy correspondence with Jessie Daniel Ames, founder of the association and director of the women’s committee of the Commission on Interracial Cooperation, leaving behind boxes of letters testifying to her activism.

This correspondence included letters she wrote and delivered to local sheriffs, in which she commended them for not allowing mobs to seize and lynch prisoners and entreating them and their deputies to read attached pamphlets from ASWPL. She also corresponded with local African American community leaders such as C.C. Spaulding, President of North Carolina Mutual Life Insurance Company in Durham, N.C., America’s largest black-owned business.

Her correspondence also shows her support for the 1934 federal anti-lynching bill sponsored by Democratic senators Edward Costigan from Colorado and Robert Wagner from New York. President Roosevelt was leery of supporting the bill fearing it would cost him white voters in the South. Many sheriffs who publicly opposed lynching also opposed the bill, as it opened them to prosecution if they failed to protect prisoners from mobs. The bill ultimately failed, despite the many letters Cox wrote to sheriffs urging them to support it.

Her 1940 eulogy delivered by Quaker minister Joseph H. Peele makes no mention of her anti-lynching activism but states ““her last official message was an earnest request that Interracial Sunday, which comes on the eleventh of this month, be properly observed.”

Tabitha Ann Holton

The first woman to be licensed as an attorney in North Carolina (or in any Southern state), Tabitha Ann Holton was born in Iredell County around 1854, graduated from Greensboro Academy in 1878, and practiced law in Surrey County until her death from tuberculosis in 1886.

She descended from Quakers and Moravians who migrated southward down the Great Wagon Road into central North Carolina, like many religious dissenters. Despite this ancestry, her father was a Methodist minister who risked his life by condemning slavery and was elected president of the North Carolina Conference for Methodist Preachers in 1863, which kept him away from his family for long periods.

When her mother died in 1871, Holton and her four siblings moved to Guilford County to be closer to their extended family. While attending Greensboro Academy, she and her brothers Samuel and A. E. Holton supplemented their education with legal books borrowed from friends and local lawyers.

A. E. also trained under Albion Winegar Tourgée, the former Union soldier who became a lawyer, writer, and Reconstruction politician after moving to North Carolina, where he founded Bennett College as a normal school for freedman. Exiled from the state when white supremacists regained political power, Tourgée became a pioneering civil rights activist and is credited with introducing the concept of “color-blind justice” into legal discourse. Unlike her brother, Tabitha never formally trained under him, but he advised her and lent her law books.

Tabitha Holton graduated from Greensboro Academy with a fierce determination to become a lawyer. On January 8, 1878, she and her brother and Samuel appeared before the NC Supreme Court in Raleigh to take the state bar exam. Samuel was given the exam, but Tabitha’s request was met with considerable consternation. After some debate, she was asked to return the following morning and argue her case to take the exam before the Court.

As she was not yet a licensed attorney, she could not make that argument herself but was represented by Albion Tourgée. Tourgée argued that the bar admission statute stated that “all persons who may apply for admission” rather than “all men.” Citing as precedent the five states that admitted women to the bar, Tourgée reminded the Court that Holton was not asking for favors but only requested a fair chance to be admitted to the bar. Upon brief deliberation, Holton was allowed to do so.

The Raleigh News reported that “Her answers to all the questions propounded were satisfactory and were given in such a manner as to show her acquaintance with the law. Not a single question was unanswered, and it was stated that she passed the examination as well, if not better than any of the masculine applicants.”

Within 10 minutes, the N.C. Supreme Court ruled that Holton should be admitted to the North Carolina bar.

Tabitha Ann and Samuel Holton soon set up practice in Dobson. She practiced law in the small Surry County town from 1878 until she contracted tuberculosis eight years later. When she died at the age of 33, the entire town mourned, and civic leaders distributed a handbill honoring her life and accomplishments. She was buried in Springfield Meeting House cemetery in High Point.

Rosetta Cora Baldwin

Beloved High Point teacher Rosetta Cora Baldwin was born in Graham on February 14, 1902, and died in 2000 at 98. During her lifetime, she educated and inspired thousands of children, first in other schools and then in the one she founded in the living room of her own home.

She first moved to High Point with her father, John Baldwin, when she was ten years old. In 1920, when she was 18, she helped him construct High Point’s first Seventh Day Adventist Church next door to their home on Olga Avenue. She graduated from High Point Normal and Industrial Institute (later known as William Penn High School) and continued her education at Oakwood College, a private, historically Black Seventh-day Adventist university in Huntsville, Alabama.

Her teaching career began in 1923 in La Grange, the small Lenoir County town in the inland coastal NC region that 21st-century developers have recently rebranded as the “Inner Banks.” For the next decade, Baldwin taught in Charlotte, Raleigh, and Wilmington, before teaching in Louisville, Ky, from 1934 until her High Point return in 1942.

That’s when she founded her private school in the living room of her family home on Olga Avenue. In 1981, a new Baldwin’s Chapel Seventh Day Adventist Church was built on Leonard Street, a block from the church’s original location, and Baldwin’s Chapel School moved to two classrooms in the lower level of the church. In 1998, a committee was formed to move the school to its own building next to the church. The new school, which included seven classrooms, an auditorium, and office space, was completed in less than a year.

“We worked hard because we were so fearful that she would leave us before we were finished,” her cousin Julius Clark told the News and Record in 2000. “We wanted to finish it so that she could see it with her own eyes and walk in it on her own feet. And she did it. It was an 18-year-old dream for her.”

Baldwin taught children in High Point for 54 years, retiring at 94. In 2001, the High Point Planning and Zoning Commission voted to rename Olga, the street where Baldwin grew up, and began her school, R.C. Baldwin Avenue. That same year, former High Point Mayor Arnold Koonce proclaimed Nov. 29 Rosetta Cora Baldwin’s Day.

Ian McDowell is the author of two published novels, numerous anthologized short stories, and a whole lot of nonfiction and journalism, some of which he’s proud of and none of which he’s ashamed of.


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